Saturday, January 29, 2022

Building Character

Lieres, Around Session 28
Image made using Hero Forge
in accordance with their EULA
Let me tell you about my character, Lieres.

No, wait! Where are you going?!

Yeah, nobody wants to hear anyone go on about their Dungeons & Dragons character unless they have some cool artwork to share. If they want to listen toy you tell a story about D&D at all, it is hopefully a short anecdote about some exciting experience that you had. Or maybe  if you learned something important about D&D as a hobby that others can learn from... but you had better tell it damned well if that is where you are going.

And that is how Lieres came up last time on the blog, (and I hope I told it well,) as a story about dealing with character death in Dungeons & Dragons. Last time I mentioned him, he had fumbled horribly while being attacked by horrid mutated rats, drove a shortsword through his own leg, and was bleeding put and burned from the lamp he had dropped. I liked Lieres... he grew on me in spite of being a statistically pathetic character whom I'd originally played as if he'd had a death wish. And I was going to be sad that he died, but I had also learned to enjoy seeing my characters die in D&D. And his was shaping up to be a hilariously ignominious death.

But here's he thing. The sleazy little varmint pulled through. The other players in my group at the time, Hayven and Thomas went through heroic efforts to save him... including crawling around in dark, creating stretchers of broken  equipment, and building elevators for him using iron spikes, rope, lamp oil, and wire. It was some elite level play, with the players actually explaining the design, using magic potions with great effect, and making some pretty intelligent logical deductions about the dungeon layout. They managed to find a path to a familiar point in the dungeon and pull him out alive.

Since then I have played Lieres in over 30 sessions, and alternated with other characters. The campaign has run fifteen months as of the writing of this article, spanning 65 sessions of which I have played in 61. And there is a lot of things that I have learned by playing him, for such a long time that I have missed in my years as a "Forever DM."

Friday, January 28, 2022

The Dice Will F$ck You

Image Courtesy of PngAAA
I just put my finger on something that's been bothering me about the culture of modern games like Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition that I couldn't quite articulate before. And that is how they differ from older editions in their relationship to the dice.

In AD&D or BECMI the dice are your enemy; you don't want to roll them! The dice will fuck you. You can't rely on success by rolling dice.

More importantly, you don't need to.

A good TSR-Era DM or GM for almost any role-playing game made before 1993, didn't rely on dice if you gave detailed narration of your actions


You use an oil lamp to blow smoke across a wall to look for places where it is drawn in or anomalously pushed away from the wall: The DM wouldn't roll a "find secret doors" check, because obviously, you'd find the seams of the door.

You hand your 10' pole to an Unseen Servant and instruct it to press down on every flagstone in a hall. No need to "Find Traps" to find a tripwire or pressure plate: it will be sprung while the PCs at a safe distance.

You suspect there is another level below you, so you empty a waterskin on the floor, then put your ear to it and listen for dripping. No need for a stonecunning or architecture roll.

It applies to combat, too. If you blocked a door with a Tenser's floating disk then antagonized an enemy into a charge, they were going to run into the disk and lose a move. No deception roll required, no saving throw given. The dis is immobile, invisible, and at gut level, after all.

All of these are examples of tricks I or some of the grognards in my groups have used in the last year. Some are not particularly original, but all are useful and effective if the GM's world works on predictable natural laws.

The best players are the ones who never let the dice fall if they can avoid it, they use terrain, objects, surprise, magic, and traps creatively to get bonuses if rolling was going to happen at all.

Moves like these are what Matt Finch describes as "Player Skill" in his Old School Primer. And the choice of the GM to use logic to determine the outcomes of narrated actions rather than resorting to game mechanics.

Once you add more mechanics , especially skills and feats or class features to enhance them, the party starts thinking in terms of getting the best rolls on the dice.

If I blackmail a noble with evidence of his infidelity, I don't need an Intimidation check, Logically I'd have his balls in a vice, and he will have to react in a way consistent with his character. If uncertain, the GM might use a tool like Morale to determine whether he meets my demands or tries to kill me.

With an Intimidation stat on my sheet, however, there's a good chance I'll be asked to roll it. Or, because it's there, I'll be preparing to roll it & trying to figure out how to boost the roll. Even if rolling to determine whether I am convincing making my demands or not doesn't really make sense.

Dice Dependence

The modern game encourages thinking with the dice and rolling them often. Even if this increases the chance of failure. This is not necessarily the case of course... It's psychological. A good DM can still leave rolling for moments of absolute uncertainty, but once you have a sheet full of stats, skills, feats, and enhancements, there is a tendency to want to apply them by the GM, who has spent a lot of effort learn the rules. And players tend to build characters to have the best possible chance to succeed on specific rolls, and will have expectations that they will be allowed to use them.

And this is self sabotage, both for a GM who wants his players to enjoy the game to it's fullest. And for players who want to see their characters succeed. Dice should only be resorted to when you are out of clever ideas, and only when you have stacked advantages in your favor.

Because the dice will fuck you. They are there to add danger. It's why combat is so dicey in most TTRPGs: to add as much risk as possible. The wise player rolls as little as possible.

But dice are everywhere. D20 memes & apparel, dice towers, dice collecting, the exaggerated response to dice in videos about the game.

We are encouraged to be addicted to the excitement of the dice, even when it changes the nature of the game. And dice are addictive. We receive random operant conditioning every time we use them.

Taken to it's extreme, this trend takes player skill out of the equation. Players play in vagueries, expecting to be told when to roll, or asking to do so. They only become specific in combat, which the enter into frequently, and rely on brute force and aggressive tactics rather than subterfuge and strategy.

Ultimately, too much dice focus creates a table culture where players are not rewarded for skill and creative problem solving. It short circuits narrative integrity and logic in favor of working with the numbers on the character sheet.

Maybe that's why I gravitate to rules light OSR and minimalistic games. The fewer the numbers, the less you think about rolling. And why I still use a d20 that I was given on my 12th birthday.

If I had one piece of advice to give newer players to the game, and especially newer GMs, it would  be to mistrust the Dice. Learn how to play so that they are rolled rarely, and preferably when you have stacked advantages.

The dice may be fun, but they are not your friend.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Game Review: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Cover: Shadow of the Demon Lord
Art by Svetoslav Petrov;
©2015 Schwab Entertainment

: Robert J. Schwalb
Publisher: Schwalb Entertainment
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
Engine: Custom d20 roll-over
Note: This is a review of a game that includes a lot of very dark themes. It is definitely not for children of any age, and especially not those sensitive to topics like mutilation or sexual violence.

Shadow of the Demon Lord is a fantasy horror role-playing game that draws its inspiration from sources like the Dark Souls saga, the darker parts of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and The Witcher. In it, you play characters seeking fame, fortune, and glory in a world that is facing catastrophe.

The empire of Rûl that once dominated the continent has fallen. The orc slave warriors that formed its legions have rebelled and killed the emperor. An Orc King now sits on its imperial throne. Dark cults are propagating everywhere. Bestial humanoids have multiplied in the wilds and and now sense the weakness of human communities. Worst of all, a powerful alien entity known as The Demon Lord seeks to push through the holes in reality so that it can consume all life and souls in the world.

While Shadow of the Demon Lord borrows a lot of its conventions from Dungeons & Dragons, it is most definitely a separate system. It sits primarily in the darker end of the sword and sorcery camp; even if the PCs are heroic, they are never going to be powerful enough or wise enough to completely avert that catastrophes tearing Rûl apart. It is a game where, at best the PCs can escape with their lives in the face of overwhelming evil, and save a few lives, maybe slow the coming of the end.

It is an extremely dark and edgy game. Monsters that enslave, sexually assault, or wear the flayed skin of humans are everywhere in the setting. Magic spells can skin foes alive, melt genitalia, or cause a target to excrete their internal organs. If you can hang with the over-the-top imagery and subject matter, it is impressive in how creatively it handles it's horror elements. It definitely speaks to my inner fourteen-year-old goremonger.

I do not recommend this game for anyone who is thin-skinned or sensitive to dark, gory, and violent imagery.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

We Don't Need D&D™

This is a topic that came up when I was on Gonzo Up Your Ass this week, and is really amplified by Travis Miller's latest post over at Grumpy Wizard. And that is that the OSR no longer needs Dungeons & Dragons™.

See, Dungeons & Dragons is two things. It is both the name for an intellectual property, and it is not one, but at least 10 iterations of a game originally created by Earnest Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

The Game

The game has changed substantially, as it has been handed over to multiple teams with different ideas across multiple generations now.

The earlier editions, the ones derived from either Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or the Basic Dungeons & Dragons lines had  a mostly cohesive experience. There were some qualitative differences, for example characters in the basic line tended to be more fragile at first but could ascend to greater heights than characters in the Advanced line 

Ultimately, the game was a grab bag of Sword and Sorcery and Science Fiction ideas with a patina of Tolkinian Fantasy over top. It was a game where characters took great risks in deadly places in order to collect lost treasure. Often, but not always, they would encounter terrifying forces of evil along the way, and be forced to make the decision to do something heroic or to be cowards.

By the latter half of AD&D2e's tenure, Dungeons & Dragons expanded to cover a lot of different gaming experiences that were often embodied in setting books such as Birthright for courtly intrigue, Dark Sun for apocalyptic fantasy, Savage Coast for pulpy wilderness exploration, etc. Headed vastly expanded as a game, but lost some definition on what it was about and what made it unique.

When Wizards of the Coast took over ownership of the game in 1999, they made some substantive changes to how it played. Characters became more powerful, especially as the system evolved. The focus became much more strongly toward combat, and complex subsystems were in place for almost anything the players might conceive of doing.

The paradigm shift to that third edition represented didn't just change the way the game was played, it was in many ways a different sort of game, with different play loops, different play styles, and a radically different core experience.

The Intellectual Property

4th edition became a radical departure. It was The logical conclusion of all the innovations of third edition, and a far more honed system, but with its elaborate combat mechanics, radically different magic system, and highly formalized play roles, it didn't feel anything like the game that had come before. Dungeons & Dragons was a label being stuck on something different. It had become a brand that was attempting to denote several very different games.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Gonzo Up Your A$$!

 Last night it was my incredible privilege to join Aaron the Pedantic and Venger Satanis on their podcast on making gaming weirder, Gonzo Up Your Ass!

We covered a hell of a lot of ground, but some highlights include:

  • Rick & Morty, how to plumb it for ideas.
  • Adventuring inside monster guts.
  • The vastness of the Cosmos.
  • Adventuring across parallel worlds.
  • How to relax and enjoy the show when players decide to burn the world down.
  • Running off and being pirates.
  • Courtly intrigue and using historical sources.
  • Sleaze and sex in gaming.
  • DIY gaming, and the culture of sharing the awesome.
  • Why the OSR doesn't need "Dungeons & Dragons" as a brand anymore.
  • Offering effective, positive criticism.

Thanks so much Venger and Aaron for a great time!

Sunday, January 16, 2022

"Let's be Pirates"

Image by Ego Altere, courtesy
of Pixabay
In the late 1990s, I had an odd mix of players who came and went from my AD&D2e campaigns, which were often short due to the sheer instability of many of my friends' lives. One particular abortive campaign in 1995 really shaped me as a DM, and is the reason I will forever stay in the Old-School camp of gaming.

The premise of the campaign was this: a legion of hobgoblins and goblinoids are building up in the ruined forts of a lost empire under a powerful new leader. If left unchecked they will mass into an army and sweep into the prosperous kingdom of Tantlin and crush much of its Northern Reaches and Heartland before they can muster a meaningful defense.

My hopes for the campaign was that the PCs would warn the authorities and start the campaign raiding against goblin camps, scouting out danger, and eventually hitting leaders to weaken and break the goblin war machine. Or adventure to find magic and secrets that could arm their homeland against the invaders, I also had a few diplomatic intrigues noted down as alternatives.

Cover: Red Hand of Doom
©2006 Wizards of the Coast
So basically, The Red Hand of Doom, but ten years before its publication, and with demons instead of dragons.

Session One

The first adventure had the PCs hired to look for ancient documents in a ruined beehive fort; I used the map straight out of the AD&D2e Campaign Sourebook and Catacombs Guide, which is one of the best resources published for DMs ever, in my opinion.

The PCs encountered a camp for advance scouts with Worgs and Goblin riders, although most of the scouting party was out (to return at a set time that would hopefully give the PCs an opportunity for Ambush.) One wall was painted with a crude map covered in notations about the area, including the best plunder and most desirable captives in the local community.

The battle plans were not very specific, and difficult to translate fully as there were lots of abbreviations, pictograms, and code, but the players got the impression that the plans are for a pretty sizable force. They realized that this was a prelude to invasion.

"Beehive Fortress" Map from the AD&D2e
Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide
Map by Dave Sutherland; ©1990 TSR
Now this was a mixed group. I had a couple of veteran players who were very serious, but one of them was forced to invite along a younger brother and a cousin of his or he would not be allowed to play (one of several passive-aggressive gambits by his family to try to make him stop playing D&D.) The brother and cousin did not take the game seriously, and were still coming to grips with the idea that all player actions are going to have meaningful consequences.

I expected that this would shape the campaign in a risky, combat-heavy direction. But I didn't expect the gambit I got.

"Well, this sucks! Let's run away, steal a ship, and become pirates! Everything here is doomed."

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Gorzeh Badlands Campaign Setting

This is just a quick sketch of a setting for a campaign in Swords &Wizardry I am starting with my son with the intent of showing him a few techniques and tools for making his own games better. I chose S&W specifically because it is recognizably an OSR Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, but is rules-wise the most uncomplicated one on my shelves: and that is saying a lot!

(That it was a Christmas present from my Sister-in-Law is a deciding factor, too.)

This is not going to be nearly as detailed as some of the other things I have been working on over the past few months. But as I had a lot of ideas, I figured that I might as well map them out out loud and discuss why I want to do them the way I do.

The Flying Knight Class for S&W


Kain Highwind concept art
by Yoshitaka Amano
My focus on Final Fantasy this week comes from watching my 6y.o. son is discovering Final Fantasy IV for the first time. I am using it to help him work on math, reading, comprehension, and media awareness skills. 

Thirty years ago, the same game really made an impression on my 7th grade Dungeons & Dragons group.

One big way it shaped my 7th grade campaigns was through the characters my players wanted to play. FFIV inspired them to want to play heroic, noble characters, or penitent ones, characters who summon monsters, or ones who can turn any object into a weapon.

My best friend Matt asked if he could play a "Dragoon" warrior-acrobat like Kain Highwind with his signature leaping attack. I didn't see why he couldn't. 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Final Fantasy's Impact on TTRPGs

Character art for Rydia of Mist
for Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.
Art by Yoshitaka Amano;
©2008 Square Enix
I cannot understate the impact that the Final Fantasy games have had on my gaming table over the years. Both for good and ill. For a lot of gamers my age they are possibly as seminal to our culture of pulp fantasy as Appendix-N. I feel that, to give context to the rise of both the OSR, Storygames, and much of the culture of gaming that emerged from the 1990s, a retrospective on this series is necessary,

Final Fantasy: A Brief History

If you aren't familiar, the early Final Fantasy games were designed to imitate OD&D with a dash of Expert and Companion mechanically. The cleric was rebranded as a white mage, the magic user a black mage (and spells mostly simplified to attacks), the monk was renamed "black belt." A sword wielding spellcaster with limited access to both healing and attack magic was created called the Red mage, Fighters and Thieves remained Fighters and Thieves; the latter has the ability to steal extra treasure and potions from enemies. In the first two games, you built a party of four and went on an adventure to save the world 

Mind Flayer attack in Final Fantasy
the Flayers were renamed "Wizards"
The original games had a lot of clear D&D references, including Mind Flayers, Beholders, Otyughs, and drow with names changed, sahuagin, ghouls that paralyzed with a touch, regenerating tolls, a Marilith, and dungeons that were clearly tips of the hat to Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Temple of Elemental Evil.

While many of the Final Fantasy games were breakaway hits globally, the first few English translations: Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy IV (sold as "Final Fantasy II" originally), Final Fantasy VI (sold as "Final Fantasy III"), Final Fantasy Seiken Densetsu ("Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest") and Final Fantasy Seiken Densetsu 2 (sold as Secret of Mana) were relatively niche products that sold primarily to Dungeons & Dragons players.

It wasn't until the release of the more cyberpunk Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation that the games found more widespread popularity with video gamers who weren't also fans of D&D.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Game Review: Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Roleplay

Cover for Ryuutama, by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
: Atsuhiro Okada
Translators: Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitowski.
Publisher: Kotodama Heavy Industries
Engine: Unique two polyhedral dice system
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, Twenty Sided Store

Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Role Play has an interesting reputation online. Whenever somebody asks if there's a role-playing game that is not built around combat and treasure hunting, it is one of the first ones that comes up. Is described on TV Tropes as a game that was built as a reaction to Dungeons & Dragons by someone who wanted to create a game with a less dark tone. 

I recently have had trouble getting my son to play RPGs, he has become averse to playing anything where he might lose. He's willing to GM them, and his stories range from the sublime to the bizarre, but are often combat-heavy to the point of being dull. So, I thought that this would be a great time for me to pick up this Japanese TTRPGs and give it a try, as I had a small budget for Christmas gifts for myself.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Simple Adventure Builder

Yesterday, my son foundered badly as a GM. He had no idea how to describe what was in a room, or come up with a role-playing based encounter other than the same wandering peddler character he has been using on and off for months.

To give him a hand, I built a series of random tables that can be used to build a cool five-room dungeon on the fly or with only a few minutes of prep. He intends to use it for Tiny Dungeon 2e, but it is completely system-neutral.

Want a quick and dirty set of dice tables for designing something short and sweet? Simple enough for a little kid to use? Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Simple Adventure Builder

So far, the best creations have been a model castle in a fish tank where a princess has hidden herself away to scheme against her father guarded by magic squid and illusions, and a dungeon where a witch is guarded by goblin servants which is lit by shining bugs and has an entrance to a sea cave with a shipwreck below.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Happy New Year 2022!

I am grateful for my readers, and want to say "thank you" for coming back.

In 2022 I have a lot I want to do.

  • Finish Deahtrap Lite: technical issues killed my productivity in December.
  • Finish a silly side project game about American soldiers fighting dinosaurs and Cthulhu cultists in 1976 in Vietnam.
  • Get Midnight Zone complete.
  • Finish my adventure module based on my House of Amber Lanterns planning exercise from 2019
  • Draw often enough to feel confident in illustrating and releasing three DCC RPG modules I have written, but not released: Vikings on a Starry Sea, Grimki's Jewel, and Slither, Witch!
  • Review my backlog of books (most already read and many played;)
    • Swords and Wizardry
    • Castles and Crusades
    • Ryuutama
    • Shadow of the Demon Lord
    • Hyperborrea
    • Machinations of the Space Princess
    • Star Adventurer
    • Goblin Quest
    • Shadowdark
    • The Thot Trilogy for Alpha Blue
    • The Tome of Adventure Design
    • Low Fantasy Gaming: Deluxe Edition
    • Numenéra and my favorite supplements for it.
    • I have Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows coming.
  • I also hope to get my hands on and review the Mothership boxed set, Deathbringer and Knave 2e.
  • I wouldn't mind getting my hand on Warhammer Fantasy 4e, Zweihander, & the upcoming TTRPG based on Goblin Slayer, either. 
  • I have some thoughts to share on sex in TTRPGs, and keeping it fun and positive.
  • I plan on doing more discussion and review of planning tools.
  • I might do some short format videos to summarize older reviews.
  • Crawling the Purple Isles is in need of updating, but the next set of adventures got so big, they beg a simpler format.
  • I want to feature some podcasts that I love.
  • I would like to try my had at podcasting again, but maybe something simpler, like a Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign.
  • I have been building two campaign worlds: one for OSE / BECMI D&D and one for Castles and Crusades.  I might share them.
  • The Cyclopedia could stand some extra additions.
  • I hope to do my interviews and guest posts, too.
  • I have been reading a lot of Appendix-N material, and I would love to offer some perspectives. 
  • I want to discuss the impact of Final Fantasy and DragonQuest on TTRPGs,
  • I plan on spending a couple of week's worth of articles on the GLOG.
So, in other words, I still have lots to say, and I am glad you are here to read it. If there is anything you would like to see me cover or discuss, let me know!